Photos circulating on Facebook appear to document an alleged thief taking items from beside a Valley Rescue Mission donation box in Russell County. The faith based charity tells News 3 unfortunately, this is a crime its members are all too familiar with.

“You know it says in the Bible, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ but we can’t stop that totally,” says Development Director Mitzi Oxford.

She says several years ago Valley Rescue attempted to hire security to monitor the 29 boxes spread out across the local communities. However, the cost cut into their charity efforts for the homeless and hungry. Now she says they simply have to resort to increasing the pickup times so no box stays full for too long.

“The donations allow us to do God’s work in the community. We either sell them to fund our community projects or give them out to those who appeal to us, say a person who had a house fire or someone trying to start over after graduating the addiction program,” Oxford says.

“Our mission is to provide for those in need, the homeless and the hungry and the least among us. Without the generosity of the donations, it would be a struggle for us to keep the doors open,” she goes on to say.

Local residents who donate to Valley Rescue Mission say they would be troubled to learn their donations had been stolen, even if they were sitting outside, and not inside, the donation boxes.

“I would be upset about it. I think that we donate because we think that we can help a lot of people, not just the people who would be stealing, and I think that that’s wrong,” says Columbus resident and frequent Valley Rescue donator Gordon Borkat. “When you’re stealing from outside the donation boxes, you’re really stealing from the people in the community who need help.”

“I know it’s not good and I know other people need it, but I hope if they are stealing they really do need it,” says Salem mom Deborah Robinson while dropping off items at the Columbus donation center on 2nd Avenue. “I would hope they’re not trying to, I don’t know, just be greedy.”

So the question remains — is it still considered stealing to take deposited items if they are outside and not inside a donation box?

CPD Sergeant Thomas Hill says the Georgia law is kept intentionally ambiguous for precisely such instances.

“There’s no boundary limit in the law. It doesn’t say the items have to be inside, outside or anything. It basically says any person knowingly taking an item that does not belong to them,” he tells News 3’s Mikhaela Singleton. “There are a lot of different charges that could apply here. Ultimately, it depends on the manner of taking and the value of the items.”

He says the Columbus Police Department Property Crimes Unit would be able to charge a person for stealing from outside a donation box. The possible charges are as follows:

  • Felony Burglary in the 2nd Degree (ex. Should a person enter into any defined “structure”, ie. donation box or shed, to steal items)
    • Repeat offenders: Held with no bond
    • Up to 12 months in jail awaiting trial
  • Felony Theft by Taking (ex. Items stacked outside a donation box are taken)
    • Applicable to items valued over $1500
  • Misdemeanor Theft by Taking 
    • Applicable to items valued below $1499
  • Misdemeanor Criminal Trespass (ex. Damage caused to a donation box in the act of theft)
    • Applicable to damage totaling no more than $500
  • Criminal Damage in the 2nd Degree 
    • Applicable to damage totaling more than $500
  • Loitering (ex. surveilling a box/rifling through items/a person caught in the act of attempting to take items)
    • City ordinance violation
    • Fine/Up to 10 days in jail
  • Misdemeanor Loitering/Prowling (ex. description above but at an unreasonable hour ie. 3 a.m.)

Sgt. Hill says although police would have probable cause to charge a person under any of the above conditions, it would be up to the victim — in this case the charity — on whether or not to press charges.

“In most cases I’ve seen, they usually choose to prosecute under the least of the available charges,” he says.

“I guess you have to look at it like, as heartbreaking as it is knowing where those donations how they end up helping the homeless and hungry in our community, maybe the person who was stealing needed it worse than we did,” says Oxford.

News 3 reached out to Phenix City PD for clarification on Alabama law as it would apply to donation boxes spread out across Russell County.

We were referred to the Alabama Legislature, Code of Alabama 1975 website, where Section 13A-8-2 describes theft as: 

  • (A) A person commits the crime of theft of property if he or she:
    1. Knowingly obtains or exerts unauthorized control over the property of another, with intent to deprive the owner of his or her property;
    2. Knowingly obtains by deception control over the property of another, with intent to deprive the owner of his or her property;
    3. Knowingly obtains or exerts control over property in the custody of a law enforcement agency which was explicitly represented to the person by an agent of the law enforcement agency as being stolen; or
    4. Knowingly obtains or exerts unauthorized control over any donated item left on the property of a charitable organization or in a drop box or trailer, or within 30 feet of a drop box or trailer, belonging to a charitable organization.
  • (b) The limitations period for any prosecution under subdivision (2) of subsection (A) does not commence or begin to accrue until the discovery of the facts constituting the deception, after which the prosecution shall be commenced within five years.

The police lieutenant on duty did explain the burglary charge applicable in Georgia would not work under Alabama law, as burglary is defined as entrance into an established domicile to obtain items. He also says it would be up to Valley Rescue Mission as the victim and the District Attorney’s Office on whether or not to press charges on a person who took items from outside a donation box.

Oxford says she and others at Valley Rescue Mission extend their hands of help and hope to those who may be tempted to steal from them.

“I’m hoping that somebody that’s desperate — because I think that that’s what drives that kind of behavior is desperation — to know that they can always come here and we’re gonna offer help and hope and counseling if needed.”

Find local community support through Valley Rescue Mission here.